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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Quarantine, Isolation, Social Distancing: How Do They Work?

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Author name: Lee Health

Defining Terms in Wake of COVID-19 

Quarantine, isolation, and social distancing: They’ve become buzzwords as U.S. health officials grapple with containing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States.

As scary as these words are, they offer a lot of potential for helping us get through the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Stephanie Stovall, infection prevention medical director for Lee Health, explains what the terms mean and how they help protect us.

“Specific to the coronavirus outbreak, quarantine and isolation both prevent exposure to people who have or may have COVID-19, the infection caused by this coronavirus,” Dr. Stovall says. “Isolation separates sick people with COVID-19 from people who are not sick. Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to the coronavirus to see if they get sick.”

Here is a rundown of terms you may be hearing lately and how they might affect you:


People who are isolated may be cared for in hospitals, other healthcare facilities and in their own homes. In most cases isolation is voluntary, but the CDC, empowered by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, has the authority to require the isolation (and quarantine) of sick people to protect the general public’s health.


When a person is placed in quarantine, they are also separated from others. Other quarantine measures include restricting travel for those who have been exposed to a contagious disease, and restrictions on people coming or going into a specific area.

States have the power to enforce quarantines within their borders, a rarely used power. The last time a large-scale isolation and quarantine was enforced was during the influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic in 1918–1919. In recent history, only a few public health events have prompted federal isolation or quarantine orders.

Did you know that the United States has long practiced quarantine measures as a public health service?

Officials established our nation’s comprehensive quarantine system to safeguard against infectious diseases from entering our country and to prevent their spread. U.S. quarantine stations currently operate at 20 ports of entry and land-border crossings where international travelers arrive.

Health officers decide whether ill people can enter the country and what measures should be taken to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Social distancing 

To slow the rate at which the virus may be expanding into new communities and to slow its spread in communities already affected by the virus, the CDC recommends Americans practice “social distancing.”

“Social distancing is a public health practice that aims to restrict when and where people can gather to stop or slow the spread of an infectious disease,” Dr. Stovall says. “This could include limiting large groups of people coming together, closing buildings, and canceling events.”

Dr. Stovall says social distancing also aims to lower the risk of infection among vulnerable populations, and reduce the burden on health care systems and workers.

“Slowing the spread of the disease can provide our national, state, and local public health care resources with the valuable time to prepare better and respond as appropriate,” she says.

Experts describe measures like social distancing as ways to "flatten the curve," which means preventing surges in illness that could overwhelm health care systems and resources.

In short, avoid public gatherings and stay at home, the CDC says. Only go out for necessities such as trips to the grocery store, medical appointments or to pick up medication. And even then, think about mail-order medication services and delivery grocery service.  

Postpone parties, family gatherings, get-togethers, and any playdates for your children. Stay at least 6 feet away from other people if you do have to go out and cover your mouth with a cloth or cloth mask. Avoid using any kind of public transportation and work from home when possible.

Should I self-quarantine?

Some people who suspect they have been exposed to the coronavirus may have been asked to self-quarantine. It’s highly recommended you self-quarantine.

“If you believe you’ve had close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, you should contact your doctor but call them prior to showing up at their office,” Dr. Stovall says. “Close contact is being within about six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a prolonged period of time, such as if you’re living with, visited or shared a healthcare waiting area or room with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Or if someone with the disease has coughed on you.”

Not sure you’ve been in close contact? Call your primary care doctor, health provider, or local health department.

Thankfully, I don’t require isolation or quarantine. What else can I do?

The fact that COVID-19 is now a pandemic should not change what you are doing to reduce your risk of exposure. Continue practicing basic hygiene routines, including:

  • Washing your hands properly and often – for at least 20 seconds with hot water. You can use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your face, including your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Stay home if you are sick and avoid contact with people who are sick.

TeleHealth Services

Utilizing telemedicine to directly speak to a doctor or advanced provider about symptoms and travel history is a convenient alternative to risking additional exposure in an emergency room or physician office setting. You can learn more at this link or look for Lee TeleHealth in your app store.

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